SpaceX Starship’s FAA Review Marks Big Step Forward For Mars Rocket

SpaceX Raptor test fire
The first test fire of a SpaceX Raptor full-flow staged-combustion, methane-fueled rocket engine in September, 2016. Emissions from this engine, as it forms a part of the company's launch vehicle tests in Texas are one of the aspects that the Federal Aviation Agency (FAA) will evaluate under its environmental assessment. Image: SpaceX/Flickr and Elon Musk/Twitter

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Space Exploration Technologies Corp.'s (SpaceX) next-generation launch vehicle that aims to replace the company's workhorse Falcon rocket lineup is currently under review by the Federal Aviation Agency (FAA) for conducting testing and launch operations. Dubbed Starship, the new rockets use a different propulsion system than SpaceX's Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy, and they will form the backbone of the company's plans to enable access to the Martian surface.

Starship Super Heavy Review Comes As SpaceX Makes Preparations For First Stage Booster's Test Flights

The details were made public by the agency on its website yesterday, where the FAA stated that SpaceX had informed it of the company's plans to conduct orbital and suborbital Starship launches. SpaceX's Starship vehicle platform consists of two components - namely the first stage Super Heavy booster and the second stage crew/cargo spacecraft also dubbed Starship.

As part of its review, the FAA will determine whether the proposed Super Heavy and Starship launches comply with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) of 1970 to ensure that the proposed operations do not harm the environment and fall in line with NEPA requirements. The evaluation generally concerns itself with evaluating the impacts from launch and reentry operations in twelve different categories ranging from socioeconomic impacts to air quality, hazardous material storage and handling, light emissions and water resources. Once it is complete, the agency will issue an Environmental Assessment (EA) measuring SpaceX's performance in the aforementioned criteria.

This review comes as the FAA's original Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the Boca Chica launch site fails to account for the expanded scope of operations that will stem from the company's Starship testing and launch. The 2014 EIS had evaluated the impact of SpaceX launching its Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy launch vehicles from Texas, and given that Starship not only uses different propellant (Liquid Methane instead of Refined Petroleum-1) but also has higher thrust, the agency has concluded that an updated assessment is needed.

SpaceX's Starship SN3 prototype in the aftermath of a cryogenic pressure test in April 2020 at the Boca Chica site. (Image Credits: LabPadre/Twitter)

Following the initial assessment, SpaceX had cleared the FAA's review in all twelve categories, and since then the agency has issued four written reevaluation following SpaceX modifying its operations. The first modification came after SpaceX modified development plans for its control center and added solar panels to generate power at the site. The second modification came three years later as the company further expanded its control center development plans, with the third modification officially expanding the scope of the original EIS to include Starship and Super Heavy development.

The original document had a provision that allowed SpaceX to conduct launches of a suborbital launch vehicle from Boca Chica, with propellant tanks of the first stage of the Falcon 9 being provided as an example. The May 2019 modification was the first to mention Starship, and at the time, it concerned itself primarily with the second stage spacecraft. Crucially, however, it outlined the timeline of Starship testing, with SpaceX conducting its experiments in three phases.

SpaceX Starship Launch site
SpaceX Starship Testing phases

FAA Announcement Comes As SpaceX Looks To Move In Second Half Of Its Testing Framework Provided To Regulator

Of these, the first two phases would determine the metrics that SpaceX would have to submit to the FAA for a subsequent review, following which the agency would determine whether the parameters for 100-kilometer Starship test flights under the third phase were in regulatory compliance.

However, SpaceX soon canceled its plans to conduct the 100-kilometer tests via an addendum filed with the agency in November last year. The company updated this with a new testing framework that segregated two static fires and three medium (up to 30 kilometer in altitude) hops for two different (Mk1 and Mk2) Starship prototypes each. A couple of weeks after the addendum, SpaceX also renamed its Starship prototypes from 'Mk" to 'SN' as it shifted to Mk3, now Starship SN1, following structural changes to the prototypes in the aftermath of a pressure test.

SpaceX updated its testing parameters with the FAA in November. These parameters let the agency determine whether the company's activities will remain in compliance with environmental regulations. Image: SECOND ADDENDUM TO THE 2019 WRITTEN RE-EVALUATION OF THE 2014 FINAL ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT STATEMENT FOR THE SPACEX TEXAS LAUNCH SITE (November 6, 2019)/Federal Aviation Agency

Over the course of this year, SpaceX has conducted three full-duration Starship prototype static fires (excluding the November firing) and two medium hops. The FAA's decision to conduct a new EIS comes after SpaceX's C.E.O. Elon Musk stated at the end of August that his company could conduct Super Heavy booster hops by last month and announced soon afterward that SpaceX would start to construct the booster prototypes.

The third Starship hop for this year is expected to take place soon (perhaps even later this month) and it will be the first to use three Raptor engines. Mr. Musk has stated that this hop, using the SN8 prototype, will also be Starship's first 15-kilometer hop. SpaceX applied for (and was granted) this test's frequency allocation to the FCC back in September, weeks before Musk stated that the hop might take place in the following month.

Should the company be successful in this endeavor, then it will have successfully moved a step forward in the launch vehicle lineup's development. Given that the FAA has also confirmed that SpaceX is working with it for the new EA, it is likely that the manufacturer rapidly progresses to wrap up key development of Starship by the end of next year.

This would then fall roughly in line with Musk's expected timeline for Starship. Speaking at the Mars Society's annual convention last month the executive had outlined, in response to a question for Starship's high-altitude flights, that:

“Alright. We’re obviously venturing into new territory, so it’s not like I have all these secret dates and know just keeping them from people [laughs]. So these are just guesses obviously. I’m pretty……I’m eighty to ninety percent confident that we will reach orbit with Starship next year. I probably….50% to 60%..50% confident that we’ll be able to bring the ship and booster back."

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